Oregon would emphasize reducing fuels in high-risk forests near communities and key environmental resources as part of broader legislation aimed at mitigating wildfire hazards.
A crucial aspect of the proposal involves steering forest treatments toward where they’re most needed, regardless of property ownership.
“We are taking an all-lands approach here,” said Dylan Kruse, government affairs director for the Sustainable Northwest nonprofit organization. “Immediately, we’re going where there’s the most urgent need.”
Though the Oregon Department of Forestry would take charge of the planning and implementation, the agency would rely on help from Oregon State University and other entities.
The targeted approach would likewise rely on state money while “leveraging” funds from the federal government.
At its core, the legislation is aimed at selecting where and how to conduct forest projects that would be most effective, Kruse said.
“We know we can’t treat all the forest acreage we want to in this state, so we have to narrow down and prioritize where we get the best return on investment,” Kruse said during a recent legislative hearing.
The U.S. Forest Service has developed a “quantitative wildfire risk assessment” that indicates about 5.6 million acres in Oregon need fuels treatments, he said.
Under the legislation, projects would begin in the four highest risk categories, with an eye toward protecting human life, property and critical infrastructure, as well as watershed health and habitat restoration.
For projects to be undertaken on federal lands, they would have to undergo analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act and exclude roadless areas, riparian reserves and other sensitive sites.
The ODF already engages in “shared stewardship” projects with the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies, so the proposed legislation would accelerate this approach, said Jeff Burns, the department’s partnership and planning director.
In February, the agency requested collaborative project proposals from across the state and received 93 applications for roughly $20 million, he said. The ODF is funding 37 of those proposals with $4 million from the state’s emergency board — enough to treat 7,000 acres — but has another 56 “shelf-ready” projects as a result.
Under the most recent version of Senate Bill 248, one of the bills being considered, ODF would receive $20 million to implement new projects in the 2021-2023 biennium.
The current proposal would serve as a type of “pilot project” that lays the groundwork for future treatments and partnerships, said Kruse.
Of the 5.6 million acres identified as requiring management by the Forest Service, about 65% are on federal lands, 25% are owned by small woodland owners, 6% belong to state, local and tribal governments, and only 4% are on industrial timber properties, said Kyle Williams, forest production director for the Oregon Forest & Industries Council, a timber group.
“Our federal lands are struggling. They’re overstocked, overgrown and underutilized,” Williams said.
To increase the resiliency of forests and prevent wildfires, the problem can’t be categorized into “silos” of land ownership but must be considered in terms of the entire landscape, he said.
“It’s not lost on us that using state dollars and resources to treat federal lands seems like an odd proposition,” Williams said. “But the unfortunate fact is that’s where part of the problems are and that’s where we’ll see the best returns on our efforts.”
Reducing wildfire danger is just one component of the broader legislation under review by lawmakers, who also plan to address transmission system plans, defensible residential spaces, smoke monitoring, emergency response and other factors.
Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, said the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Wildfire Recovery will most likely consolidate the current proposals into a package of legislation, which is “easily the most ambitious” bill before the committee and its “centerpiece work.”
The committee is soliciting amendments to clarify and specify the legislation’s language and expects to vote on the proposal in April, he said. There is a natural tension between getting the legislation written well but also doing it fast.
“Oregonians expect us to get into implementation to reduce the likelihood of another 2020 as quickly as we can,” Golden said, referring to last year’s record-setting wildfires.